Binny Amin has a challenge on his hands - one of a very large and green kind. A few months ago Binny took on a second store in Kent, and at 4,500sq ft the former company-owned Budgens in the heart of Whitstable’s bustling town centre is more than three times the size of his award-winning, customer-centric first store in the nearby village of Blean, near Canterbury.
Yet despite its gargantuan size - and assertions from customers and colleagues that it can’t be done - Binny is determined that the same impressive standards of customer service that have become Londis Blean’s USP will be replicated at Budgens Whitstable.
The bar is certainly set high. Binny’s relationship with his local customers, and the extra mile that he travels to improve their lives, has seen Londis Blean amass an arsenal of accolades, including the prestigious Londis Store of the Year award in March 2012, and a My Shop is Your Shop award for Community Retailing.
“For me, service is king,” explains Binny. “When I’ve shopped in other stores that’s what I’ve always craved, and often found wanting. It’s amazing how negative a bad shopping experience can leave you feeling. I want every single shopper who visits our stores to leave feeling happy, fulfilled but, most importantly, cared about.”
Binny takes pride in his customer knowledge, and expects staff to meet the same high standards. Employees at Blean, for example, are regularly tested by Binny to see what they know about their shoppers, such as new additions to the family, birthdays, holiday plans, and favourite products.
“It has to be genuine, though, or customers see through it,” he says. “How many times have you been to a supermarket checkout and been wished a nice day, fully knowing that the assistant could care less? I never want people to think that about my store or my staff.”
And despite the fact that the team at Whitstable is more than three times the size of that at Blean, Binny is confident they can work in the same way.
“Blean didn’t happen overnight it was me leading by example. I need to get the staff to change their corporate mentality and start thinking more independently, but it will happen.”
Given Blean’s older age demographic, and the store’s proximity to a retirement home, it’s not surprising that the customer group witnessing Binny’s charm offensive is the older generation. He even has a deal with the local taxi company to collect elderly shoppers from the local residential home and bring them to the store to have a coffee and buy their groceries, before personally delivering their goods to the home in the evening.
“We have a lot of retired customers at Blean, and for them coming to the shop is an important part of their day. They are constantly popping into the back during their visits and have a quick chat with me. I love that they feel they can do that.”
This is one element that he’s hoping to be able to mirror at the larger Budgens in Whitstable, also a desirable retirement area. “As a former cinema, the backroom areas of the Budgens in Whitstable are vast, but I’m determined to keep the office spaces as welcoming as possible. I really want shoppers to feel that they can come up here and speak to me whenever they like and have a tea or coffee. It all adds to that feeling of trust, which is so important when trying to foster community spirit. If they can see what’s going on behind the scenes in the back offices, see that they are clean, approachable, friendly places, then it all helps to build the good reputation of the store as a whole.”
At Budgens Whitstable he’s already been working hard to involve the area’s elderly residents, by asking them to help him piece together a mural dedicated to the store’s history.
“I knew that the store was built as a cinema back in the 1930s and I wanted to pay homage to its past,” explains Binny. “I called the local newspaper and they ran a story in which I appealed for people who remembered the old cinema to get in touch with me.” The idea has proved a spectacular hit. “I couldn’t believe how many letters and photographs I received from elderly local people who remembered what it used to look like and were keen to tell me what the building meant to them. Some of the stories were intensely touching, such as how they courted their future husbands or wives at the cinema, while others remembered sheltering there while bombs rained down on the town in the second world war.
“Much of the old cinema, including some of the old seating, is still intact in the back room areas and I’m only too happy to take people on tours around it if they wish,” Binny adds.
A wholesale sideline also provides another welcome service to shoppers at the smaller Blean store. “Like most convenience store retailers, space is limited so I can’t always stock all the things that customers want. However, that doesn’t stop me ordering them in for customers to collect. I’m only too happy to stick extra cases of beers or wines to my order for customers who are having parties. It’s just another useful service that I’m happy to provide.”
And with so much back room space at the new Budgens store, it’s an additional service that he hopes to be able to offer at the Budgens.
Binny’s attitude to ranging is also being successfully replicated at the Whitstable store. “Planograms are great, but I only use them as a guideline,” he says. “The rest I do by always looking at the store from a customer’s point of view and talking to shoppers about what they like, what they don’t and what they’d like to see more of. I also watch the way in which they navigate the store, paying close attention to any problems or issues they might have.”
At 1,450 sq ft, surveying the scene at Blean is easy work. However, it’s also made possible at Whitstable thanks to a large window that looks out of Binny’s first floor office down onto the shop floor, offering him an exceptional view of shopper habits. Being a hands-on man, though, he’s generally found down on the shopfloor, in the thick of it.
“In these challenging times you can only survive if your business starts and ends with your customer. Anyone can have a refit and get a flash new store it’s the service that makes the difference,” he adds.
“Lots of people have said that I won’t be able to replicate the same service standards at Whitstable because the supermarkets can’t get it right, but I’m determined to prove them wrong. My weapon is my independence. I can use my common sense and people skills to react to changes as and when I need, which the supermarkets can’t. In these parts independent retailers are highly prized and valued, so getting the message out there that I am an independent business that supports other local suppliers and organisations will also be really important.”
A tie-up with the local cookery college in the coming months is expected to be a big hit. “It would be win-win,” explains Binny. “We’d get our fantastic local and Budgens products promoted to shoppers, and they’d get the cookery experience and the publicity that they need.
“I’ve got so many ideas about how we can make positive changes to the local community,” he adds. “However, patience is also really important. The real key to success is taking the time to stop and reflect on what you’ve achieved, what more you want to do, and the best way of doing it.”
It’s a formula that certainly seems to be working so far. ■